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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 28, July 8, 2023

National Research Foundation: welcome step, but governmental control be avoided | P S Jayaramu

Friday 7 July 2023

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by P. S. Jayaramu *

5th July 2023

The initiative for the establishment of the National Research Foundation (NRF) as an agency for centralised funding for research across the country was spelt out in the NEP document in 2020. But sadly, it took virtually three years for the Union Government to give approval for its creation. A bill will be introduced in the Lok Sabha in the upcoming monsoon session. Once the bill is approved by the Parliament, NRF will become a reality. Better late than being dumped in the politico-bureaucratic maze, as it is happening with regard to the replacement of the UGC by the four vertical bodies envisaged in the NEP. Broadly speaking, the NEP and the NRF are to be seen as part of the Union Government’s vision to guide the country into the 21st century in the educational sector.

As part of our endeavour to understand the cantours of the NRF, it is necessary to take a look at the broader activities of the Foundation, as outlined by the NEP. They are to :

(1) fund competitive, peer reviewed grant proposals of all types across disciplines;
(2) facilitate research in academic institutions, particularly in universities and colleges, where research is currently in a nascent stage, through mentoring of such institutions;
(c) act as a liason between researchers and relevant branches of government as well as industry so that researchers are constantly aware of the most urgent national research areas demanding attention to allow breakthroughs for policy preparation and implementation; and
(d) recognise outstanding research and progress.(p.46, of the NEO document). Indeed a very comprehensive set of activities envisioned for the NRF covering all the stakeholders— students, faculty, industry and the government—something which was lacking in the past for funding research covering vast range of actors involved in the higher education ecosystem.

The NRF will, thus, be an apex body which will not only provide the policy framework for funding research, but provide centralised direction to scientific research across the country. Under the NRF framework, the hitherto existing Science and Engineering Research Board which was created in 2008 by the UPA government will either get merged with the NRF or cease to exist. A clarification in this regard will hopefully follow.

The overarching goal of the NRF, as identified by the NEP is “ to enable a culture of research to permeate through our universities and to provide a reliable base of merit-based, but equitable peer-reviewed research funding”.(P.46 of the NEP document). Clearly, the emphasis is both on merit and inclusion in research funding.

The organisational structure of the NRF deserves close scrutiny. Though it is stated that the Foundation will be an autonomous body, the provision that the Prime Minister will be the Chairman of its Governing Board and that the ministers for Science and Technology and Higher Education will act as Vice Presidents leads to suspicions that the Union Government may remote-control the functioning of the body. That the NRF will have eminent scientists representing various disciplines is the silver lining. But, here again, care should be taken to ensure that nationally recognised social scientists too find representation in the Governing Board. Hopefully, clear-cut and transparent criteria for the selection of experienced and eminent researchers as members would be laid down to avoid ‘sarkari scientists’ and loyalists being packed into the body. Ideally, the Foundation’s governing body should exclude the PM and the two ministers, though the Government can indicate from to time its thrust areas for research. The NEP document states categorically that “the Foundation will be governed, independently of the government, by a rotating Board of Governors consisting of the very best researchers and innovators across fields”. (P.46). Hope, the pious hopes contained in the NEP 2020 would be honoured. After all, the inspiration for the NRF came from the US National Science Foundation, which enjoys total freedom in its functioning.

The provision for the NRF having an Executive Council to be headed by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Central Government as its Chairperson to oversee its functioning may act as a boon or bane, depending on how proactive and objective the person will be and the integrity of persons who become members of the Executive Council.

The funding aspect of the NRF merits analysis. Institutions which predominantly provide financial assistance for research include the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology, (DBT), Indian Council of Agricultural Research, (ICAR), Indian Council of Medical Researc,( ICMR), University Grants Commission, (UGC), Indian Council of Historical Research,(ICHR) and Indian Council for Social Science Research ( ICSSR). The NEP states that “these organisations will continue to independently fund research, according to their priorities and needs”( P46) and clarifies that “the NRF will carefully coordinate with the other funding agencies to ensure synergy of purpose and avoid duplication of efforts for research”. The amount earmarked is ₹50000 crores spread over five years, covering the period 2023-2028, to be used for funding priority areas in research. It is stated that out of the total amount, ₹37000 crores would be raised from the private sector, which means government funding will only be marginal. This is indeed disappointing. The central government should hike its GDP spending on research from the existing 0.69 percent to around 1.5 percent. Comparatively, China spends 2 percent and the US 2.8 percent, with the global average hovering around 1.8 percent. Interestingly, many corporate houses in India are spending more money on research and development.

It is not clear whether the government has already held discussions with industries regarding their share of funding, specially, in view of the fact that industries usually fund research in areas beneficial to them. Luckily, some individual phiilantrophers and philanthropic bodies fund research in areas relating to health and inclusive education.

Care should be taken to see that funding would cover Pure and Applied Sciences and Social Sciences. NRF grants should not be diverted for supporting research in semiconductors and space science which are no doubt important research areas for the government and are critically important for national progress. As noted earlier, priority should be accorded to research in state universities and colleges as outlined by the NEP. IITs may be encouraged to tap their ever-expanding alumni and other sources for their research activities.

In conclusion, we need to appreciate the setting up of the NRF. But, the Foundation should be allowed to work independently.

* (Author: P. S. Jayaramu is former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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